A Different Journaling Journey

daybooks

My foray into past journals is not nearly as pleasant as that of my friend and co-author of Mary & Me. Unlike the other Mary, I did not keep a journal through college, and the “daybooks” that span 20 years of my life could hardly be called journals, with little space for contemplation, rumination, or poetry, if I’d been so inclined to write any.

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The first daybook is dated 1992. I was a 32-year-old mother of four when I began filling daybooks with notes about the weather, my children, my super coupon shopping sprees and mailbox full of refunds and trades, a distinct lack of money and time, and notes on whatever I was working on in regards to the freelance writing I’d been doing since 1987. By March of that year, I’d picked up work as a correspondent for the Bulletin-Journal newspaper in Independence.

I was also ill, as is evidenced by repeated references to upset stomachs, headaches, joint pain, brain fog, and an extreme fatigue. By early 1992, I’d been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and prescribed a medication to treat one of the worst symptoms, the one that had relegated me to the bathroom for much of each day during 1990 and 1991.

I don’t have daybooks from the previous two years, but I do have doctor’s reports, hospital admissions papers, and a chronological list of symptoms I took with me to the doctor who I believed saved me. He was the first one (of many doctors) to listen to my litany of symptoms and not dismiss me as a hypochondriac. This doctor, who I am still loyal to some 25 years later, was willing to consider that I was suffering with an immune system disorder that there was no definitive medical test for, and suggested we begin treatment by targeting the worst symptom of an illness that ruled my days.  Up until that point, I had seen a number of specialists who’d zeroed in on only one of the many symptoms, ran tests, and then declared me perfectly healthy, their eyes narrowing at my continued distress. One ER doctor pulled my husband aside and told him to quit coddling me because there was nothing wrong with me. Another insinuated I was a bored housewife with nothing to do but complain. A doctor I had trusted up until that point had the audacity to look me in the eyes and ask, with some irritation, why I had to find out what was wrong with me, telling me I should just learn to live with it, whatever it was. He then prescribed tranquilizers and an anti-depressant. The next morning, I took one of the pills, set my children in front of the television with bowls of cereal, collapsed on the couch and apparently slept through a tornado siren, because I woke up to two children screaming, a darkened sky, and the front porch screen door slamming against the side of the house. I hustled my children to the basement, and never touched those bottles again.

That’s the thing about delving into old journals, or in my case, daybooks~ we resurrect less than pleasant memories. Both Mary and I unearthed our respective “journals” when we wrote our chapters on navigating young motherhood. At the time, I’d quickly returned the daybooks to the cupboard where I store them; it was too painful to look back on those years of zero time for myself, the constant struggle to make ends meet, and of course, the reminder that, despite his failings during many of those years, I’d had a partner to share in all of it, a partner that was no longer there.

I had to do the same thing last night. I nearly threw the daybook I was reading into the trash. I was actually surprised that my January 1992 goals had not only included “getting my health back, though I’m not sure I have any control over that,” but also “formulating a refund workshop for community colleges,” and “getting work with the local newspaper.” What possessed me to think it would be a good idea to find work when I was dealing with a chronic illness? And yet, later entries demonstrated how much that little extra income helped our family, and the fact that I could work my hours around both my illness and my husband’s hours, made it the perfect job at the time. If I guarded my daily activities and took an afternoon nap, evenings were my best time of day, at least early evening. As is evidenced by the previously referenced November 10, 1992 notes, a midnight meeting, and subsequent lack of sleep triggered a resurgence of symptoms the next day. And yet, I somehow met that newspaper deadline. While I wouldn’t meet either of my other two goals for 1992, a pregnancy in 1993 brought remission of my illness and reclaimed my health, and four children and nearly 20 years later, I’d reach the goal of teaching an extreme couponing workshop at a community college. Proving that sometimes, our dreams become our reality, though not always in the time frame we’d desire.

From my research into the health benefits of expressive writing and journaling, I can’t help but think that a real journal, one in which I could have filled several pages with rumination and contemplative thoughts, would have been beneficial to me during those next twenty years when I utilized a daybook. I didn’t begin actual journaling until the morning after my husband’s death, and since 2012, I’ve filled three journals, and am close to filling the fourth.

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Ironically, those journals, filled with anguish and the laments of a woman with a broken heart, are not at all difficult for me to look though. The difference is simple, and what I recommend in my classes on expressive writing.

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Without instruction, I instinctively did what was most healing; reflecting, and looking for meaning in my experience.

And I found it.

I often flip through the pages of those journals. Despite the messy, scrawled handwriting of a woman in deep emotional distress, I can easily see spiritual and emotional healing taking place. Because I was also jotting down Bible verses, and quotes and passages from authors who’d been down the same path of grief, I can read those verses and quotes today, experiencing the same feeling I did when I copied them; a lifting of the spirit, and a sense of being a part of something so much bigger than my own pain.

I filled several pages of the first journal with an itemized list of the unusual experiences that preceded David’s death; my teen daughter, Emily, joining a youth group, her incessant need to hug her Dad, the many workshops and a newspaper column I’d recently undertaken, the newfound friends I’d made at a Christian Writer’s conference, our newly acquired taste for the Christian radio station, the many conversations I’d shared with David in the previous three months about love, faith, and even remarriage, and how often I’d caught him gazing at me in apparent adoration. Then there was his life insurance policy being reinstated just 27 days before his death, and the last book he’d touched having been a Cecil Murphey book on getting to heaven. It became obvious to me that God had gone before us, preparing us for loss of husband and father.

Those journals tell a story as I wrote my way through grieving David, and then a few months later, facing the loss of a grandson. And while it is a heart-rending one, the story contains a clear message of hope. I wouldn’t mind future generations reading these journals after my death.

The daybooks? They tell a different story; a dismal rendering of the chronology of my day-to-day life without the benefit of any reflective or contemplative time spent in which to look for meaning in those days. While they remain stored in a cupboard for now, someday I’ll have to decide if there is any benefit to keeping them at all.

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A Journaling Journey

by Mary Jedlicka Humston

Mary and I both journal. In fact, I shared some of my journal entries in the “Oh, Baby!” chapter of Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink (pgs. 55-60). I possess over 40 journals, most tucked away in a crowded, little closet in one of our guest bedrooms. I’ve been writing my feelings in them since I was 19 years old. It has helped process the multitude of experiences I’ve faced in the course of several decades of life. Special quotes and letters are also glued among my entries.
For many years now I’ve wanted to re-read them. Yes, all of them. So, I decided the time was ripe this summer. While I’m only up to journal number four, and have a long way to go, it’s been an interesting journey so far.

Surprises await with the turn of a page. A tiny paragraph about “jim h.” and how much I liked him makes me smile now since he has been my husband for 40 years. Names of college friends. Experiences I’d forgotten. Old songs important enough to write down the titles.

And, then there are the poetic musings. Some are actual poems; some just random thoughts. Several years ago I “mined” the first two journals from my late teens and early 20s and discovered quite a few old poems. I submitted a few “as is” and, joy of joys, they were published. Reworking others provided even more acceptances. Can you imagine the fun of still liking that poetry enough to send it out into the world?
One of the surprises was this phrase from January, 1975.

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Those 12 words resonated enough that a few years ago I created two different poems from them.
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Pirouette was accepted for the 2013 Iowa City Poetry in Public Project. These poems are placed on posters and scattered around town and displayed on city buses. At that year’s Iowa City ArtsFest, I had the pleasure of reading it alongside others who read their Poetry in Public poems, too. Pirouette was also selected as a “Poem of the Week” for the National League of American Pen Women (NLAPW) website. Mary and I are both members of this 120-year-old organization.

And, what an unspeakable delight to have it chosen to be one of the poems representing the UNESCO Iowa City of Literature for the “Poems on the Wall” in Krakow, Poland, in conjunction with the UNESCO Krakow City of Literature. For one 24-hour period, it was projected on a downtown wall in Krakow, alternating between the Polish and English languages. That in itself was amazing, but when a dear friend returned from a trip to Poland and said she actually saw my poem on that wall? Well, all I can say is that was an experience of a lifetime.
Here’s the other poem that evolved from that original phrase in my journal.
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This sweet little haiku won First Place in a poetry contest at the NLAPW 2014 Biennial Letters Competition. What an honor!

So, it’s easy to see why I’m having so much fun this summer as I re-read my journals. Who knows what phrase or thoughts will turn into my next poems? I can’t wait to find out.

Journey back in time…with journals

My co-author and I discuss our mutual use of journals in Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink. Mary JH has been journaling for most of her adult life. I, on the other hand, utilized daybooks from 1992-2012, with just enough room on the pages to make daily notes.

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I clearly remember choosing most of these; searching for one that spoke to me in some way. If I really loved the style, I’d order more than one. The Lucy Swindoll “Quite Honestly” and the “Fruit of Her Hands” came from a Christian book club I belonged to. I loved the Susan Branch Days style so much, I searched for more on eBay. Who knows why I chose the 2010 Retro Mama with a wine bottle on the front, when the only time I drink wine is on Christmas Eve? Clearance rack, perhaps? The 2009 large format Day Book was one of my favorites. The dark blue leather-bound was a splurge for 2012. Sadly, I stopped writing in it after my husband’s death in late March, but that was also when I began journaling in earnest, utilizing personalized journals I’d gotten free with coupon codes, and then stashed away, not sure what to do with them.

journals

In looking through my old daybooks this morning, I discovered just how much I managed to convey in them; It’s painfully obvious that I lamented my lack of time as a young mother. I can’t look too closely at the many times I scrawled notes like a woman crazed, desperate for some time alone. I wrote about this in Mary & Me:

Not long ago, I unearthed my old weekly engagement books dating back to 1990, when I was a thirty-year-old mother of four. Two things are evident from these abbreviated journals: I loved my children with all my heart, and being a mother was a difficult job most days. Parenting was particularly hard considering the intensity of my mothering style. In the span of twenty years’ worth of journals, I would add an additional four children to our fray. Those daybooks with their brief notations do a pretty fair job of chronicling what it was like to care for a large brood.

After several hours of reading them, my breath quickened and my heart raced. Before I succumbed to an anxiety attack, I shoved them back into the cupboard. I telephoned my daughter Elizabeth. When she picked up and said hello, I heard a screech in the background along with an ominous crash.

“How do you do it?” I asked without preamble. “How do you handle three children underfoot all day and not go crazy?”

“Who said I’m not crazy?” she retorted with a laugh.  (page 50)

This morning’s foray into the past netted some interesting tidbits of information. I’m surprised how much of my past would eventually become my future. In 1992, I listed my goals for the year. I wanted to #1) send out one article a week, #2) present the idea of a couponing/refunding class to Hawkeye community college, and #3) approach the Independence Bulletin Journal newspaper with an idea for a column. By March 3 of that year, I had a job with the Bulletin-Journal, one that included a once a month column. In May, a New York film company visited my house, filming for a video-tape about couponing. It wouldn’t be until November 2011 that I would conduct a couponing workshop for a community college. On May 7, I noted that my article on “letter-writing” had appeared in the newspaper. A  prelude to a future book on letter writing perhaps?

In October 1994, my book proposal for “Homeschooling From Scratch” was accepted, via a postcard through the mail. I signed the book contract (again by mail) on December 14. Advance copies of that first book arrived on my doorstep on June 13, 1996.

I wouldn’t remember these dates, if it weren’t for the engagement books.

In 1998, I noted that I was sending out a book proposal to potential publishers again, one for a book I planned to write that would be filled with hints and tips for large families. I advertised in Mary Pride’s “Big Happy Family” magazine for women to respond to my questionnaire, and had collected nearly 40 responses.

Eventually, I would throw out the entire file. It wasn’t the greatest idea for a book, particularly during an era when families were getting smaller. After reading my daybooks, the real reason behind it becomes obvious. I was desperate to know the secrets of those mothers who’d managed to find time for themselves. Peace and quiet. Contemplative silence. By researching and writing a book specifically for women like me, I was hoping to find some answers for myself. Those answers remained elusive, however. I was disappointed to discover that none of the women who filled out my questionnaire had free time.

Maybe because the secret was in not having a large family in the first place. When Mary JH and I met in 1986, the youngest of her three children was three years old. I was pregnant with my third, and would go on to have five more children in the ensuing years, while Mary stopped at three. During the years I was lamenting my lack of time, letters from her revealed she was experiencing what I yearned for. She could already see a difference in 1987:

“Later journal entries showed mothering was less intense as my children grew, reflecting that freedom by showing a less-stressed mother. More joys of parenting were chronicled, and a woman with better rest, more confidence in her mothering, and more free time emerged. Me time was still a precious commodity, don’t get me wrong, but it was easier to fit in than before. Looking back, I only wish I could’ve given that worn-out mother with the young children in the early 1980s even a smidge of the bountiful time I have now. That young mother would’ve devoured it. I know this because I remember her well.”- Mary Jedlicka Humston, “Mary & Me” page 59

It’s obvious through the notes in my engagement books that I did manage to find time for one thing during those years, and that was writing. Some days, I think it saved my sanity.

I carried a notebook everywhere I went. If a child fell asleep in the back seat while I was driving, I’d pull over to the curb and frantically write before he or she woke up. I scribbled away on a legal pad as I sat on the toilet lid while toddlers bathed. I made notes on the back of grocery lists in the store. I eagerly welcomed my children’s desire to have me sit near them as they fell asleep, because I could write by the dim bulb of a nightlight.

When I teach beginning writing workshops now, I bring along a laminated 8 x 10 photo from that era. There I am in 1994, pecking away at a typewriter with baby Matthew in a backpack, peeking over my shoulder. This was my reality, the “glamorous life of a writer,” I tell those young mothers in my classes who lament their lack of writing time. –from “Mary & Me,” page 67

No matter how many children or how little time I had, that 1992 goal became a reality for me. Outside of a few arid months after the birth of each baby, I submitted something at least twice a month, sometimes once a week. If my work was rejected, which happened quite often, I’d tweak it, polish it up, and send it out again. The submissions, rejections, and acceptances are all noted in the daybooks. I managed to hit 100 acceptances by 1993. 1996 was particularly prolific. I stopped counting published clips by the time I hit 500.

I often wonder what I should do with my daybooks and journals. Mary JH has confided that she has wondered the same thing.

When I filled the first journal after David’s death, I knew I would leave it behind for the purpose of possibly helping one of my children (probably a daughter) through the inevitable loss of a spouse. It would have helped me to know how my mother handled the loss of Dad.  I lived more than an hour away from Mom and was busy raising young children when he died. She and I didn’t share a lot of conversations about her experience, but I still cherish the letters she wrote afterwards, where she shared little bits and pieces. Dad died in May. In June, my mother wrote about Father’s Day. It seemed as though she was thinking about her children’s loss more than her own:

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Four months later, she would write about a bereavement support group she attended:

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My children won’t need to wonder how widowhood was for me. They’ll have my journals and my book, “Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace.”

But do they need to know that on November 4, 1994, I paid the bills and had only $85 left to get through the rest of the month?  Or that too many times to count in the year 2000 I wrote I would “go stark-raving mad” if I didn’t get some time to myself?

But then, maybe Michael would like to know we went to Show Biz Pizza on his 5th birthday, and Dan left on an airplane for Alaska on June 15, 1994, and a year later, on June 5, their dad and I opened a bookstore. That Matthew fell down the stairs on October 12, 1995, and while the ER doctor said it was just a bad sprain, three days later, our family doctor would discover his wrist was fractured. Would Emily like to know that in February 1996, when we discovered I was carrying a girl, we were considering naming her Sarah?

I guess I’ll hang onto those daybooks, after all.